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"Uncreative Genius"
September 22, 2011 3:57 AM   Subscribe

"The prominent literary critic Marjorie Perloff has recently begun using the term 'unoriginal genius' to describe this tendency emerging in literature. Her idea is that, because of changes brought on by technology and the Internet, our notion of the genius—a romantic, isolated figure—is outdated. An updated notion of genius would have to center around one's mastery of information and its dissemination. Perloff has coined another term, 'moving information,' to signify both the act of pushing language around as well as the act of being emotionally moved by that process. She posits that today's writer resembles more a programmer than a tortured genius, brilliantly conceptualizing, constructing, executing, and maintaining a writing machine." --Kenneth Goldsmith on why "genius" is an archaic concept, and how literature in English has fallen half-a-century behind advances in visual arts and music
posted by bardic (44 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
For the past several years, I've taught a class at the University of Pennsylvania called "Uncreative Writing." In it, students are penalized for showing any shred of originality and creativity. Instead they are rewarded for plagiarism, identity theft, repurposing papers, patchwriting, sampling, plundering, and stealing. Not surprisingly, they thrive. Suddenly what they've surreptitiously become expert at is brought out into the open and explored in a safe environment, reframed in terms of responsibility instead of recklessness.

Not surprisingly because maybe it is also the easiest thing to do? Just because the Internet has made being lazy even easier, it seems wrong to conclude that original genius no longer exists or is being encouraged. It just might be harder to spot amongst all of the noise.
posted by three blind mice at 4:21 AM on September 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


The prominent literary critic certainly has a flair for coining inelegant phrases that require a lot of explanation to be of any use. That probably means nobody else is going to use her phrases.

At least, I hope they don't.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:29 AM on September 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


Creativity has always involved repurposing ideas, techniques, motifs, etc, etc -- but yes, the movement to acknowledge, internalise and advance the principle is definitely hella interesting.

I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say that "word processing, databasing, recycling, appropriation, intentional plagiarism, identity ciphering, and intensive programming, to name just a few" on their own are necessarily very interesting except in an experimental sense. But when used by someone like Andrew Hussie, who also has tons of original, creative talent and uses all this INTERNET-type technique to glue it all together - that's when it can lead to incredible things, like Homestuck (and Problem Sleuth!).
posted by Drexen at 4:29 AM on September 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


Copypasta is nowhere near the experience of true creative writing. The psychic effort involved in creating an entire world out of the void of your own mind is exhausting, scary, tedious and frustrating in the extreme. How I would have loved to have done my 190+ page fiction thesis just by rearranging the words of others rather than spending nights staring at a blank page, willing my mind to string together one acceptable sentence.

Also, what three blind mice said.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 4:32 AM on September 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


Hmm, I had a few different problems with this piece.

Firstly: our notion of the genius—a romantic, isolated figure—is outdated.

I would submit that it has always been outdated - or rather it is supra-date, being based myth and ur-narrative than any reality. You only need look at the discourse swirling around David Foster Wallace to see how much currency these ideas of genius - as narrative themselves - still hold.

But moreover, I think the article - phd and courses or not - takes a pretty reductive view of what post-modernism means, and couples it with the notion that this kind of construction or pastiche is new - while at the same time breathlessly positing its antecedents.

Cherrypicking examples does not really a movement make, I feel. And the author hedges his bets - regularly backing off his claims and saying "we'll still do things the regular ways, but everything's changing!"

I don't know, I feel it starts off with a flawed premise, and then ends up in a kind of shambolic ramble through a few disparate examples and hypotheticals about what might happen in the future. Ironically, a lot of what he's talking about has been the absolute marrow to good criticism for centuries, not to mention history.
posted by smoke at 4:33 AM on September 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


Clearly this is setting the stage for a literary revolution.

Or is it?


I had to read these lines in Homer Simpson's voice.
posted by chavenet at 4:37 AM on September 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


A-also:

By comparison, there was nothing native to typewriting that encouraged the replication of texts. It was slow and laborious to do so.

What?!

How about:

"By comparison, there was nothing native to illuminating manuscripts that encouraged the replication of texts. It was slow and laborious to do so."

What is the point of cursing the tools (whether it be pen & inks, the printing press, the fotocopier, the Ctrl-C & Ctrl V buttons etc etc) rather than cursing what is done with them, by many, and enjoying what is done with them by the very few who are able to use the tools to create?
posted by chavenet at 4:42 AM on September 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


So, the basic thesis this whole thing is based on is "everything that can be written has already been written"?

That's not a fact. That's a lack of imagination.
posted by hippybear at 4:43 AM on September 22, 2011


So, he says it's OK to post a "double?"
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:53 AM on September 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


The literary world still gets regularly scandalized by age-old bouts of fraudulence, plagiarism, and hoaxes in ways that would make, say, the art, music, computing, or science worlds chuckle with disbelief.

Speaking for (the intersection of) two of these worlds: No.
posted by erniepan at 4:59 AM on September 22, 2011


What gets me about Goldsmith's approach is that he totally overlooks how valuable and worthwhile the process of writing is for clarifying your own knowledge and understanding. Having to put your ideas and conclusions in your own words changes what those ideas and conclusions actually are - it's why so many student essays set out by arguing one position, but argue something slightly (or even totally) different by the end of the paper. Speaking as someone who assigns a fair number of independent research papers, I don't do it because I want students to be able simply to find relevant information and present it in an organized way (the skills Goldsmith seems to value). I assign them because the process of putting everything into their own words makes students better, more sophisticated thinkers.
posted by amy lecteur at 5:17 AM on September 22, 2011 [11 favorites]


One of the commenters in the Chron thread beat me to it -- TS Eliot's "The Waste Land" is arguably the high-watermark of literary modernism in English, and what is that poem but a pastiche of other people's words?

So my biggest problem with the piece is the wall he builds between Modern and Postmodern esthetics. I'd argue the latter is an extension more than it is a true break.

But I think some of his larger points are enlightening.

At the very least, decades of workshop- and university influence have really watered down poetry in English.
posted by bardic at 5:51 AM on September 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


And, of course, 'Nothing is new' is not so new either. Roll up, Roll up! Ecclesiastes 1:10!

"Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us."
posted by robself at 6:01 AM on September 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


What gets me about Goldsmith's approach is that he totally overlooks how valuable and worthwhile the process of writing is for clarifying your own knowledge and understanding.

Not to speak for Kenny Goldsmith, but one reply I've heard to criticisms like this would be that post-whatever writers (like Goldsmith, whose books of poetry do things like reproduce verbatim hundreds of pages of phone book listings or months of issues of the New York Times) may be exploring a larger cultural critique and understanding of how context works, the idea of what a text is in culture -- in place of the kind of (perhaps solipsistic, if seen from their perspective) clarification of one's own ideas that goes into a traditional lyric poem.
posted by aught at 6:03 AM on September 22, 2011 [5 favorites]


...literature in English has fallen half-a-century behind advances in visual arts and music

I hadn't realized it was a race.
posted by benito.strauss at 6:07 AM on September 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


At the very least, decades of workshop- and university influence have really watered down poetry in English.

Workshops (and I speak as a graduate of one) certainly have commodified and standardized the path to becoming a "poet" or "novelist" -- you pay your tuition money, put in your time, follow the steps the famous writers walk you through, and with a little ass-kissing and luck, there you are.
posted by aught at 6:10 AM on September 22, 2011


...literature in English has fallen half-a-century behind advances in visual arts and music

I hadn't realized it was a race.


It seems like you're deliberately misconstruing it to score a point.

It's not a race, but different disciplines do have qualities (for example, openness to innovative techniques) that can be meaningfully compared and contrasted.
posted by aught at 6:13 AM on September 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


This fellow has discovered the mashup! It's adorable.

Otherwise, meh. There are certainly artists who can re-purpose words in literature and make startling new meanings in the juxtapositions, and so on. And yes, the result can be original in the sense of overall end work having a different and unique effect on the audience than the component would have had in their original setting. And the Internet makes it easy to share, mix and modify.

None of this suggests the mashup culture will either supplant or minimize the interest in or (commercially speaking) the market for original works, however. It's fine for the fellow to suggest it -- he's got to make noise as an academic -- but people still have stories to tell and other people still want to read them.
posted by jscalzi at 6:41 AM on September 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


The prominent literary critic Marjorie Perloff has recently begun using the term 'unoriginal genius' to describe this tendency emerging in literature. Her idea is that, because of changes brought on by technology and the Internet, our notion of the genius—a romantic, isolated figure—is outdated.

I'm pretty certain this isn't her idea.
posted by Skeptic at 6:54 AM on September 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Using pomposity in order to justify unoriginal thinking or even plagiarism is far from new. I'm pretty sure the first bard caught out "repurposing" somebody else's epic tale had just as convoluted justification as these people...
posted by Skeptic at 6:58 AM on September 22, 2011


I find the idea that a literary critic defining down genius so she can be included hilarious.
posted by Chipmazing at 7:02 AM on September 22, 2011


I stopped reading when the author tried to validate Lessig and Doctorow with Martin Luther King and Muddy Waters. This article, typifying the Ivory Tower attitudes, creates a straw man to argue against, that the model for literature is a cloistered monk writing illuminated calligraphy on parchment with a quill pen, and would have railed against the invention of moveable type. It would be inconvenient for him to note, the monks were mostly copying existing texts.

They said this sort of rubbish about the typewriter too. Capote saw Kerouac's work and said, "That's not writing, it's typing." I've seen The Scroll, even as typing alone it's a work of genius.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:06 AM on September 22, 2011


Also, to the T.S. Eliot point, I'm a HUGE Waste Land fan. It is far too simplistic to say that that is an example of this. The Waste Land orbits the burden of intelligence and human life under the squalor of modern life. It is at times deconstructionary, ripping down accepted scaffolding to its baser allusions, and often darkly satirical, full of footnotes penned to mock academics, nonsense language, purposefully ellusive and stilted polyglotism and juxtaposing the scriptural texts with the equivalent of pop songs. It is also a swirling beauty, sucking in the reader to a otherworldly place that is purposefully not fully realized. It was penned in the context of a completely nervous breakdown from a manic depressive. Most swathes are original, the entire thing was groundbreaking, and in some sort of competition where "any shred of creativity or originality" was penalized, it would have failed miserably. But I'll stop, because I'm a huge fanboy. Eliot arguments are like Who Shot First debates.

This quote "an updated notion of genius would have to center around one's mastery of information and its dissemination. Perloff has coined another term, "moving information," to signify both the act of pushing language around as well as the act of being emotionally moved by that process" is already how we define genius, at least in a written and verbal capacity. This has always been the case. This is not new, not in the slightest. In all fields of genius, one's ability to intake, keep and synthesize vast amounts of new and old information is crucial, and its dissemination - via lectures, speeches, stories, papers, books - necessary to your demonstration of intellect. "Moving Information" sounds like, uh, good writing and speaking? Like, actually, that is a fantastic definition of that.
posted by Chipmazing at 7:22 AM on September 22, 2011


"Pushing language around" (and cornering it, grabbing it by the lapels, and subjecting it to a withering blast of bad breath) - isn't that what Thomas Friedman does? (amirite?)
posted by Philofacts at 7:27 AM on September 22, 2011


Chipmazing, what you're singling out here is the author's inadvertent invocation of the old Chinese Room. He believes that manipulation of information can simulate genius, even if it is not actual genius. It assumes there is a formula for genius.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:29 AM on September 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


So, the basic thesis this whole thing is based on is "everything that can be written has already been written"?

It's true, from a certain standpoint. Ideas do not emerge fully-formed from the thigh of Zeus. They are all, all constructed out of other ideas.

Our civilization is the history of ideas emerging, combined from the Original ideas (derived from observation of nature & instinct), then combined from those, then combined from those, until we got where we are today.

Sites like TVTropes (don't go there if you have stuff to do) make it painfully clear how everything comes from someplace else. But there is still scope for originality, in how these ideas, and which ones, are put together. That is what creativity is. Even if you have an idea that you can't trace the origin of, that doesn't mean there was no origin.
posted by JHarris at 7:32 AM on September 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ideas do not emerge fully-formed from the thigh of Zeus.

No, I'm pretty sure that's how we got the Segway.
posted by griphus at 7:36 AM on September 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Even if you have an idea that you can't trace the origin of, that doesn't mean there was no origin.

You'll find that if you say this to most people who value the wondrous and precious originality of their own attempts at writing, you'll get a lot of push-back, much as we're seeing in this very thread.
posted by aught at 7:38 AM on September 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


charlie don't surf - thanks! Although, I must say (cynically) that "simply following a program, step-by-step, which simulates intelligent behavior" is basically already our baseline for 'intelligent behavior' in society. See: The academic world, the political world, the corporate world.
posted by Chipmazing at 7:38 AM on September 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Give it some time. Everyone wants another genius every other week. It doesn't work that way. The important things to remember: you are almost certainly not a genius. There is almost no chance that anyone you know is a genius. You'll be extremely lucky if any single person in your generation is a genius. Remember: human history has at least another million or so years of recorded history to go, and we're only a few thousand into it! Slow down! Chill out!
posted by jet_manifesto at 7:45 AM on September 22, 2011


It assumes there is a formula for genius.

Actually, I don't think this is what he's implying at all, and perhaps the opposite. It seems to me that folks like Goldsmith don't believe in genius, the way most people define it (the divine inspiration, the thunderbolt of creativity striking out of the blue) and I think he's critiquing the more conventional notion that some seed of innate genius can be nurtured by established writers in their students through formal settings like creative writing classes or workshops (that, to me, sounds like the attempt to find a "formula for genius"). Meantime, a lot of folks, like him and his students, can perhaps, putting in some thoughtful consideration and trial and error, do clever or interesting things manipulating text in this vast sea of information we find ourselves in today that are likely to amuse or entertain some others.
posted by aught at 7:45 AM on September 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


From the headnote to the post, I thought the article, which I found interesting, was going to discuss something that has occurred to me (or am I plagiarizing?) about the ability to search through trillions of words online.

Which is that writing a High Modernist prose poem like Ulysses, or poems like the Waste Land or the Cantos, may well be so much easier now. Genius not necessarily required. Those authors had to plant their asses in chairs in marathons of reading, studying, note-taking to assemble the ridiculous number of allusions their work is known for.

But suppose that today, an ordinary well-read person with some decent literary flair wanted to try to write a novel-chapter, in the style of Ulysses, which involved a central metaphor having to do with ears and hearing. How hard would it be, really? Could I not -- with extreme ease, relative to what they would have had to do -- search medical texts, ancient and modern, to produce a dizzying array of anatomical jargon? And search the history of poetry to conjure up clever, subtle allusions to lines that refer to ears, hearing, sounds, music, deafness, on and on?

Please note that I'm not at all saying that an ordinary well-read person could produce a great or even very good such chapter. All I'm noting is that technology makes it so much easier to perform the kind of compiling allusiveness that texts like the Cantos represent.
posted by Philemon at 7:47 AM on September 22, 2011


Philemon, it seems to me that the genius of, say, a work like Ulysses, is not in the "compiling allusiveness", but rather in the integration, synthesis, and transformation of entire bodies of thought. That is not necessarily something that modern technology assists. Some would say that in fact such creative process is hampered by technology.
posted by jet_manifesto at 7:59 AM on September 22, 2011


I thought this was brilliant, the clearest example I've seen of Goldsmith describing his ideas, and I am going to recommend it to one of my students this afternoon. As a visual artist who tries to keep an ear to the ground when it comes to contemporary writing, Goldsmith's determination to bridge the worlds of art and literature is invaluable. The literary avant-garde would be far richer if there were more writers and literary critics who were as aware as he is of art history since Duchamp. Perhaps they could start by perusing UbuWeb, a fantastic web resource founded by Goldsmith.
posted by oulipian at 8:38 AM on September 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


(to clarify, "a visual artist who tries to keep an ear to the ground when it comes to contemporary writing" refers to myself, not Goldsmith)
posted by oulipian at 8:39 AM on September 22, 2011


Not to speak for Kenny Goldsmith, but one reply I've heard to criticisms like this would be that post-whatever writers (like Goldsmith, whose books of poetry do things like reproduce verbatim hundreds of pages of phone book listings or months of issues of the New York Times) may be exploring a larger cultural critique and understanding of how context works, the idea of what a text is in culture -- in place of the kind of (perhaps solipsistic, if seen from their perspective) clarification of one's own ideas that goes into a traditional lyric poem.

aught, thank you, that helps a lot - and I'll admit to having a kind of knee-jerk reaction to plagiarism, so I'm sure I'm one of the people Goldsmith is trying to reach. For creative, literary, poetic purposes I think his ideas are really, really fascinating - especially the bigger cultural issues this kind of thing raises (text, context, attitudes towards 'authority' in text and information, etc.). Plus, I'm coming at this from a decidedly non-literature background - most of what occurred to me reading this piece was that this concept of the 'unoriginal genius' - the person who adapts to a massive, technology-facilitated increase in the amount of raw information and text available to him by turning to management, rearrangement and repurposing of preexisting texts and ideas to say something new - is in itself nothing new.

/pedant historian
posted by amy lecteur at 8:48 AM on September 22, 2011


Huh. Somebody needs to reread Tristam Shandy (available for download at Gutenberg.org).
posted by jokeefe at 9:10 AM on September 22, 2011


This fellow has discovered the mashup! It's adorable.
posted by jscalzi at 8:41 AM on September 22


I was surprised a few years ago to discover, when I had what I thought was a relatively new (if not actually original) impulse to try to translating mash-ups (which I listen to somewhat frequently) to poetry, that there's a long tradition of mash-up poetry. They're called centos (which comes from the Latin for "patchwork") and go back to Homer and Ovid and folks like that (and Wikipedia claims Dickinson wrote them but I haven't run across hers).

I actually have one coming out for publication in December in Australian journal Cordite, which is doing a whole issue of what they're called "electronic(a)" including apparently quite a few mash-ups/centos. I used public domain texts to avoid copyright issues, but there's no reason contemporary texts couldn't be used if you went to the trouble of securing permissions (don't know if it'd be considered fair use unless your use of the line was considered criticism), poets being generally pretty affable and understanding about using one or two lines from a poem (since there's such a tradition of that, and it's only frowned on when the poet tries to pass off the line as their own). I'll be interested to see how much effect mash-up culture has on the prevalence of centos - it seems like it'd be bound to increase them - but they're not new (as somebody noted above about "The Waste Land").

Anyway, interesting post!
posted by joannemerriam at 10:17 AM on September 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


This fellow has discovered the mashup! It's adorable.
posted by jscalzi at 8:41 AM on September 22


(requoted for annoyance value)

Also, if anyone really wants to see something that really is akin to mashups in the contemporary poetry scene, you should google around for Flarf poetry, which runs traditional lyrical sentiment through idioms of exaggerated pop-culture and kitch language, particularly the sort of pop and kitch you can find on the internets. I'm sure some of you, er, fellows will really despise that (particularly the sort who seem to still consider Eliot and Pound the height of avant-garde).
posted by aught at 1:40 PM on September 22, 2011


Perloff: She posits that today's writer resembles more a programmer than a tortured genius, brilliantly conceptualizing, constructing, executing, and maintaining a writing machine.

Okay, I swear I'll let this thread go now and move on to the rest of the metafilters, but I just wanted to add that anyone who doesn't know a programmer who is a tortured genius probably doesn't know that many programmers.
posted by aught at 1:47 PM on September 22, 2011




This fellow has discovered the mashup! It's adorable.
posted by jscalzi at 8:41 AM on September 22

(requoted for annoyance value)

Also, if anyone really wants to see something that really is akin to mashups in the contemporary poetry scene, you should google around for Flarf poetry, which runs traditional lyrical sentiment through idioms of exaggerated pop-culture and kitch language, particularly the sort of pop and kitch you can find on the internets. I'm sure some of you, er, fellows will really despise that (particularly the sort who seem to still consider Eliot and Pound the height of avant-garde).


I still dislike the idea of mashups, though some of my favorite writers quote other writers. I think the mash up, as commonly used, is a bit of a dead end.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 4:56 PM on September 22, 2011


When truth is replaced by silence, Lethem's piece is a self-reflexive, demonstrative work of unoriginal genius that isn't a failure until he begins with beatings and exquisite torture, giving people a multi-model perspective. When you start messing with heroin, there are two things that make life worth living: Mozart, and proving that the theory of quantum electrodynamics is mathematically self consistent. He offers no choice save between our acquisition of abusive power or our knowing that the answer is Yes
posted by Twang at 6:45 PM on September 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


"This fellow has discovered the mashup! It's adorable."

Eh. Way to miss the point -- he's saying visual and musical artists discovered it a long time ago, but a stultified cult of "genius worship" has stunted literature in English.

I'd say when it comes to poetry this is undeniable. In a more multi-vocalic genre like novels, not so much (i.g., Pynchon, Delillo).

Or maybe Billy Collins is the author for you.
posted by bardic at 10:39 PM on September 22, 2011



>>> ...literature in English has fallen half-a-century behind advances in visual arts and music

>> I hadn't realized it was a race.

> It seems like you're deliberately misconstruing it to score a point.


While I do like the points, what I really wanted to do was ridicule the idea of there being competition between disciplines. Americans love a race, but it's not always the best way to understand things.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:21 AM on September 23, 2011


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